The events of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia are told in hindsight through the lens of Jim Burden’s memories. Jim’s coming-of-age on the Nebraska prairie and his friendship with Ántonia Shimerda are conveyed through a set of memories introduced in a framing device where Jim presents his written recollections to the narrator of the introduction. In this introduction, Jim says, “I didn’t arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia’s name recalls to me” (6). My Ántonia, then, despite its realist narration style, is not an entirely realist narrative: rather than objective truth, it is concerned with personal mythology, recollection, and individualized storytelling. The way these forces function in the text as a whole can be examined through a close reading of any of the many smaller stories that the larger framing device contains. One such case is the chapter that recounts Jim’s first killing of a rattlesnake. A close reading of the snake’s death reveals tension between its contextual reality and its larger symbolic mythology; this can then serve as a microcosm for the way the reality of My Ántonia is structured around individual recollection.
The snake story is introduced as an establishing point for the formation of Jim’s masculinity. It catalyzes Ántonia’s greater respect for Jim, something he perceives as properly gendered: “I was a boy and she was a girl and I resented her protecting manner. Before the autumn was over she began… to defer to me in other things than reading lessons” (37). The scene itself is in many ways structured around Jim’s assertion of his masculinity. He says of the snake that “his abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion somehow made me sick…. millstones couldn’t crush the disgusting vitality out of him” (38). Later, he says it “seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil” (39). The snake functions on two symbolic levels. Firstly, it creates an archaic villain for Jim to triumph over as part of a traditional confrontation between good and evil. Secondly, the descriptions of the snake’s “vitality” and “muscularity,” as well as the emphasis of its length and girth, gives it a phallic quality. The snake’s defeat serves, therefore, as an achievement of both sexual maturity and the rugged heroic masculinity represented by the American West.
Jim’s recollection of the story in hindsight, however, allows him to undermine both of these symbolic readings at the end of the chapter. He notes, “my first encounter was fortunate in circumstance. My big rattler was old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight in him” (40). In other words, the enormous size that represents the snake’s phallic potency is actually an indication of its age, which makes it easier for a child to overpower. Furthermore, its defeat is not a glamorous triumph of good over evil; it is a struggle between a human and an animal, both of which adhere to the forces of nature. Jim ultimately connects the falsehood of his masculine coming-of-age narrative to the archaic good-and-evil structure he’d originally connected it to: “It was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was for many a dragon-slayer” (41). In other words, the structure of this chapter presents a symbolic, meaningful story that captures a moment of coming-of-age, but undermines what this story says about age, heroism, and masculinity through the presentation of contextual reality.
This contextual reality, however, does not define the narrative role of Jim and Ántonia’s encounter with the snake. Instead, this narrative role is determined by the romanticized story Ántonia creates from the encounter. In the aftermath of the snake’s death, Ántonia’s celebration of Jim’s actions convinces him of a changed truth. Rather than a terrifying encounter in which he acted on panic and instinct, her compliments allow him to frame the event as a positive formative moment: “I began to think that I had longed for this opportunity and had hailed it with joy” (39). Jim later finds Ántonia “telling the story with a great deal of color” (40) to his family and finds years later, at the end of the text, that Ántonia told the story to her own children. The archetypal myth of heroic American masculinity that Jim realizes has been falsely constructed is made real all the same through Ántonia’s vision of the world and her capacity to convey it to Jim, herself, and their community.
The importance of the defeated snake, then, lies in the symbolic status Ántonia’s storytelling power grants to it. This construction can then in turn be read as a microcosm for the way storytelling as a whole functions within the novel. Each story told within it, as well as the overarching story Jim presents, is not defined through its connection to concrete fact. Rather, it is created through the meaning that the teller’s identity, agenda, and sentiments give it. Jim is Ántonia’s male and American best friend, which leads her to mythologize him as an ideal of American masculinity for the rest of her life; first in the form of heroic rural ruggedness, and then as urban intellectualism. On the flip-side, Jim takes Ántonia’s struggles with class and immigrant status and integrates them into an ultimately romantic, resilient picture of her. Her struggles with the land, both the physical farmland and the American culture she attempts to find a place in, are resolved through the integration of her memory into the prairie Jim remembers from his childhood. Jim and Ántonia mutually define their realities through the ways they remember each other, no matter how well each of them lives up to this recollection. Thus, the meaning of events in My Ántonia is not inherent, but put in place by the characters’ power of recollection and narration. The circumstances of the defeated snake matter less than the story Ántonia creates around them; in the same way, the narrative fabric of My Ántonia rests on the stories Jim and Ántonia create around each other.